Italy is one of our favorite destinations and one of our favorite things to do in Italy is to hop off trains on stopovers in the smaller cities. Parma has been one of my absolute favorite stopovers. Not only is it a food-centric city (parmesan cheese or Parma ham (prosciutto), anybody?), but it also has one of the oldest universities in the world, a breathtaking domed cathedral, and a unique theatre built of wood and plaster.
Our Parma “layover” was only 3 hours long. This was a good amount of time to see the highlights. One thing that affected our layover length was that the Parma train station does not have lockers! We carried our bags with us. It wasn’t far from the train station, but we took all the chances we could to put our bags down and rest our shoulders. That said, it was totally worth it, I’d do it again, and I’d do it for longer.
1. Eat some Parmesan cheese and Parma ham!
What else would come first?! This is literally the first thing we did. Train station to Pepèn, a really great quick, cheap, lunch place. We arrived at about 2pm and it was still quite packed in their little shop. It was honestly a little intimidating trying to figure out how ordering worked. It was hard to tell since there were so many people squished in there! I mean, I sometimes can’t even figure out ordering patterns at NYC deli’s, let alone an Italian-speaking one! But we got it done and the counter staff was so sweet. We did order in Italian, but it’s as easy as “uno carciofa e uno prosciutto.” You can do it 🙂
I’m actually not a huge fan of prosciutto unless it’s cooked, so Brian got a prosciutto panini, just prosciutto, nothing fancy. He really loved it. He grew up on ham and cheese sandwiches, so this was right up his alley. Just the Italian version sans cheese. I made sure I got my fill of Parmesan cheese. I ordered the Carciofa (translation: artichoke). It’s Pepèn’s artichoke tart—bread stuffed with artichoke, parmesan, and ricotta. It was like hot artichoke dip stuffed bread. It really hit all the spots. We went really simple, but they also have a horse tartare if you’re feeling adventurous!
2. Duomo di Parma and the Battistero di Parma
I was literally speechless when I walked into the Parma Cathedral (aka the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta). There are some cathedrals in Italy, like Il Duomo in Milan or Florence, that you expect to be spectacular. We weren’t sure what to expect out of the Parma Cathedral, but the beauty of it definitely compares to the more well-known cathedrals in Italy. Not a lot I can really say here, just take a look at the photos! And they barely do it justice. Don’t forget to visit the baptistry too! No ticket fees—this is a working cathedral.
3. Teatro Farnese
This theatre was built in 1608 out of wood and plaster and then painted to look like expensive marble. It was so expensive to use that it was only used 9x between it’s dedication in 1628 and last use in 1732. After that, it was left in ruin and then bombed during WWII. The demolished parts have been rebuilt out of wood and plaster and the rebuilt sections were left bare so you can see the wood! It makes for a beautiful theatre. We paid €5 for our tickets (reduced price for students) to see inside the theatre. Tickets are normally €10, and includes entrance to the theatre, the National Gallery, and Archeological Museum. Check current prices here (heads up, the site is only in Italian). Upon entry, you can explore the theatre floor, walk up on the stage, and even go backstage. It’s open to explore!
4. Monastero San Giovanni
This monastery was seemingly closed when we arrived, nobody was around, the heat and lights were off! However, the doors were open, so we went in! The natural light was beautiful in lighting up the church different than what we were used to seeing. Monastero San Giovanni was painted by Antonio da Correggio, who also painted the Parma Cathedral just three years later.
5. Chiesa della Staccata
We arrived during a service, so we didn’t explore here much, but we stepped inside and it’s yet another beautiful church in Parma that you should be sure to visit!
Maybe it’s the concentration of so many beautiful buildings in such a small, lesser-visited, city of Italy, but Parma really blew my mind on how amazing it was and was really the city that sparked my love of Italian small towns. Knowing that such great gems were in all these hidden places.
Don’t forget to watch the Parma video too! We hit all these places and there’s even a breakdown of the time we spent at each place listed in the description of the video when you view it on YouTube.